Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
July 10, 2016
The Rev. Dcn. Patricia Marks
In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. +
New York! Many folks think of it as a noisy, bustling place, full of pickpockets and beggars mixing with CEOs and movie stars.
But growing up there, I knew it as a neighborhood, with friends coming from all walks of life. New York was a place where my best friend Thelma cried because she wanted a Christmas tree and I cried because I wanted a menorah. The two mothers rolled their eyes, threw their up hands, and continued being good friends.
My other best friend was Ann, whose mother was a British war bride. They invited me for dinner one night—a dinner of buttered corn on the cob. I loved it. Years later, I realized that was all they could afford.
All my parents could afford was a tiny basement apartment in an old brownstone, with a stoop—that’s a set of outside stairs leading to our neighbor’s apartment. She had five squirming Chihuahuas and a picture of Jesus on the wall, whose eyes followed me around the room and terrified me. Anyway, Ann & I would play on the stoop waiting for George, a wealthy kid who lived around the corner in a beautiful apartment on Riverside Drive–all our mothers were good friends despite the difference in where we lived. Ann & I would hold out handfuls of spices from my mother’s cabinet and convince him that they were delicious beyond words. So George would taste, and it was awful, of course. My husband says that’s why George probably grew up to be a product liability lawyer.
I’d walk to school—P S 9—by myself, proud as punch to feel so grown-up. What I didn’t see was the network of mothers all along the block keeping an eye out, so if one of us tripped over a curb, someone flew out of her apartment to help. Those were neighbors indeed.
We found the same kind of neighborliness when we moved here. “You need a mailbox slot in your front door,” said Col. Joel Teasley, who lived next door—some of you remember him. And then, when our Florida room flooded, he said—“Don’t worry—I’ll take care of it.” And he did.
I have many more stories like that, about people you know and love. And in a way those stories are versions of today’s Gospel reading. So let’s look at it more closely.
We’ve all seen the road in Luke’s story on TV programs about the Middle East. It’s an asphalt ribbon that cuts through a landscape of rocks, where stunted bushes struggle to survive. It runs down a steep escarpment from the Judean hill country to the Jordan valley, and vanishes into a shimmering haze of dust. Close your eyes and visualize that road some 2000 years ago. No asphalt, just dirt and pebbles and shattered stones, a road without signs or markers. That’s the road in the Gospel story.
Standing there in the haze, you can just make out something lying by the roadside. It’s a pile of clothing—no, it’s a man, severely wounded and unconscious. Two figures are moving away, further down the road. They passed this injured man by—why didn’t they help him?
One is a Temple Priest. If you’ve memorized the Old Testament laws, you know that touching a dead person meant you were unclean for seven days until you underwent ritual cleansing. That’s rather time-consuming, and the Priest has too much to do. So he walks on.
The other is a Levite, a Temple servant who has strictly defined duties, among them offering sacrifices and instructing the people in the law. This Levite can’t put his work in jeopardy. Perhaps his motto is “It’s not my job.” So he too keeps his distance.
Lest we be angry with those two, we can add our own excuses. What can I do, we might say, I’m not a doctor. What if the robbers are still here? I have a very important meeting and can’t be late. Someone else will take care of it.
Ironically, all these things may be true, but—wait, here comes a third man. You hear the soft hoof beats of his donkey as he brushes past you. He’s a Samaritan, an outcast, one of the Jews who stayed behind during the Babylonian exile. He believes all sorts of unacceptable things, such as worshipping God on Mt. Geraszim instead of in Jerusalem.
He makes no excuses. He simply sees a person in need and stops and helps.
I wonder how the wounded man feels about all this—would he care who stopped to help? What if you were that person rolled in the dust? The dust may not be the stuff that clings to you after gardening; it may be the dust of sorrow, of illness, of grief. And suppose someone notices and wants to lend a hand? Sometimes, as I know from experience, it can be harder to accept the outstretched hand of that Good Samaritan than it is to be one.
This life of ours is like a road. It may be steep and narrow, and run through some very uncomfortable and downright dangerous territory. The future is lost in a haze. We may stumble and fall; and there are always wounded on the roadside.
The ones in need may not be physically injured, but they need a word or a hand. Someone needs to run across the street to pick up a crying child, someone needs to walk across a lawn to welcome a brand-new neighbor. Someone needs to stretch a hand across all the boundaries that divide us, whether it’s religion or politics or ethnicity. It’s always one on one, person to person, neighbor to neighbor. It’s up to us to change the path by love and faithfulness.
So let us look again at the end of the Gospel reading.
“Who is my neighbor?” the lawyer in Luke asks Jesus.
“I am,” Jesus says. “As you help one of the least of these, you are stretching out your hand to me.”
In His Holy Name. +